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Concept and Symbols

Concept and Symbols

Symbols are the only means to evoke and convey realities which cannot be expressed directly. These realities are conceived as concepts. A concept cannot be valid without a symbol. Nearer a symbol to the concept higher is its acceptance as an ideal. This leads to a peculiar, but inevitable, situation; the highest symbol now may be confused with the concept itself! Thus, for example, a Man of God does not remain a symbol of God; He becomes the God.

The concept of God can be valid in so far as people believe its symbolic representation in Jesus Christ, Sri Krishna, Lord Buddha, Ramakrishna, or similar Men of God. The symbol is often incomplete representative of a concept; the corollary that a concept can be represented by various symbols thus holds true. Thus, a higher concept like 'Consciousness as Absolute Reality' can be represented by many symbols. Therefore, Jesus Christ, Sri Krishna, Lord Buddha, or Ramakrishna, etc. simultaneously become God with forms, as well as Impersonal Truth representing Formless Reality.

Language and words are approximate symbols for thoughts, imagination, and all other functions of mind. No language can fully capture the thought in its totality. For instance, the concept regarding emotions and its effects on various people cannot be fully told in any one form of language or set of words. For, the language used by a friend, close relative, or a stranger regarding the same event would be different in its formation and expression. Therefore, development and richness of language leads to the variable symbolism for the same concept.

While a concept evolves as a result of abstraction and generalization based on the experiences of humanity in different time and place, the symbol tries to represent the concept in its one particular aspect. Symbol is always somewhat crude (or gross), and is not able to, or does not find it necessary to, express the totality of an abstracted concept that it represents. This is the cause of lag between the concept and a symbol.

Be that as it may, without the symbol of language and words the concept can never be transmitted and translated in appropriate behaviour and reactions. Symbol is necessary for the nearest approximate comprehension and propagation of a concept for the benefit and growth of human intellect and wisdom. It enhances the power of abstraction based on higher and higher cognition. Gestures, written and spoken speech and words are familiar symbols. So also whole of the Nature: plants, animals, human beings, sky, mountains, oceans, etc.

At times, even the concept cannot be formulated about the highest abstraction (or generalization) of a truth or reality. This is true with regards to the highest abstraction of Transcendental Reality. Not only the words fail but also the mind fails to grasp and express the abstraction. With language, imagination, thought, and ideas also fail. Then such concepts are "downsized" to lower symbols of God, with or without form or attributes. The symbol of God itself now becomes the concept of highest abstraction and generalization.

Various sections of humanity, race, clan, associations, nations, and people try to use symbol of their choice to actualize the concept of God. Jesus for some, Buddha for others, OM for a few, and so on. Similarly image worship and crude form of rituals are seen depending upon the growth (or lack of it) in various groups of people. It is not prudent to look down upon their mode of symbolic representation of a concept that may be the same as for highly evolved race or a culture. And in the same stream, if aboriginal in India, Australia, and Africa continue to see God in trees and mountains, the dead and the ghosts, we should have no hesitation in accepting such symbolism.

History of art and literature, science and religion is the history of bridging this gap between the concept and symbols to its closest possible approximation. Thus great individuals, books, literature, music, work of art, etc. come to existence as the best possible symbols of a concept.

In science it takes the form of successive enrichment in scientific laws and theorems; while in religion it progresses from lower form of worship to higher form of worship. From lower knowledge to higher knowledge (apara vidya to para vidya), from grosser to subtle, from forms with attributes to formless without attributes, the journey continues. *
C S Shah
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